Follow John Lennon’s Footsteps in Karuizawa
The beloved resort town that draws celebrities from around the world
Karuizawa is Japan’s premier four season mountain resort and is a regular destination for some of the Japan’s most famous people. Summers are particularly attractive and the lush greenery and flowers of the mountain forests in July and August, as well as the cooler temperatures at one thousand meters (over half a mile) of altitude attract ultra-high wealth visitors from throughout Japan and around the world.
In fact, John Lennon of The Beatles and his family were regular long term visitors in Karuizawa until his untimely passing. John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent several summers enjoying Karuizawa. Here’s some places he visited regularly.
Tea Time at The Mampei Hotel
When John and Yoko came to Karuizawa they always stayed at The Mampei Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Karuizawa. The Mampei is part of an exclusive group of “Japan’s Classic Hotels” which are considered to be some of the finest, and oldest Western-style hotels in the nation.
The hotel was originally created as a Japanese inn over 250 years ago during the Edo Era, and was reinvented as a western-style hotel over 120 years ago. The main building was recognized for its unique history and architecture and was chosen as a national “Tangible Cultural Asset” by the Japanese government in 2018.
When visiting the Mampei be sure to visit the cafe terrace and order the Royal Milk Tea which was a favorite of John. The recipe for the Royal Milk Tea at the Mampei was actually taught to the service staff by John himself. The Apple Pie was also a favorite of John’s, as well. Also be sure to try the famous “Karuizawa Toast” (French Toast) at either the Main Dining Room or the Terrace Cafe.
Dining in the gorgeous main dining room is also highly recommended. The garden changes throughout the year and offers different seasonal views from window front tables. Check out the large stained glass works in the Main Dining Room showing images of Karuizawa during the Edo Era, and during the early 20th Century.
Also, visit the historical display at the back of the lobby. The piano that John played while staying at the Mampei is on display in the small museum.
Enjoy Fresh Bread at French Bakery
French Bakery (or “France Bakery” in Japanese) is a landmark bakery on the Kyu Karuizawa Ginza - the main shopping street in Karuizawa. John and Yoko visited there regularly to buy bread and other baked goods, John was particularly fond of the French bread here and would walk over to buy baguettes regularly.
Come here for an early breakfast. During the summer season the bakery and cafe open at seven AM. Buy one or a few of the many types of rolls and order a cup of coffee. There are a few seats with nice views of the Kyu Karuizawa Ginza shopping street where people watching is entertaining.
French Bakery was founded in 1951 immediately after the post war occupation period. The owner worked as the chief baker at the Mampei Hotel before striking out on his own to create this Karuizawa classic.
Usui Pass Lookout Point
The Usui Pass Lookout Point was a favorite spot for John and his family in Karuizawa. It is historical, culinary, and spiritual location, and at 1200 meters altitude it has spectacular views.
The Lookout Point is the high point which travelers coming out of, or going into the Edo Plain had to climb while walking along the Nakasendo, the main road for hundreds of years until the mid-1800s.
Access to the Lookout Point by either driving, hiking, or take the Karuizawa Aka Bus (Karuizawa Red Bus). If it is anytime between April and November, take the Aka Bus since it is an adventure unto itself. You can ride the classic red bus at the Mampei Hotel or several other bus stops around town including the Karuizawa Kai Tennis Courts, the Tourism Info Center on Kyu Karuizawa Ginza-dori, or at the Tsuruya Ryokan, a classic Japanese inn. The ride is about 10 minutes on the bus to travel the approximately four kilometer route.
Once you arrive, first walk over to the Lookout Point itself. Weather permitting, you will get a beautiful view overlooking the Kanto Plain and the city of Maebashi. Be sure to take pictures with one foot in Nagano Prefecture and one in Gunma Prefecture at the sign that delineates the prefectural border.
Walk around the back of the Lookout Point and see a table that points out various mountains in Japanese language. If the sky is clear, you should be able to view Mount Asama, the local volcano in Karuizawa.
If you arrive early in the day, you may be lucky and see a phenomena known in Japanese as Unkai or a “sea of clouds” as you look out over the tops of clouds that are stuck in between the nearby mountain peaks. The peaks appear to be islands in a sea of clouds.
Next walk up to the Kumanotaisha Shrines. There are two shrines at the top of a steep stairway right next to each other. The one on the right is in Gunma prefecture and the one on the left is in Nagano prefecture. The historical rivalry is legendary. The small three legged crow sculptures which have a fortune inside are popular souvenirs.
To the left of the shrines is a large and very ancient tree which is considered to be a power spot in the area. Walk clockwise completely around the tree once while making a wish and maybe it will be granted.
After visiting the Shrine head back down the stairs to one of the several tea shops which serve soba and the local delicacy called chikura mochi which are pounded rice cakes with various toppings available. Travelers would eat these to regain their strength after the hard hike up the mountain pass.
John would also regularly take his family to see a natural wonder in Japan called Shiraito no Taki or Shiraito Falls. Shiraito literals means “white threads” and it is an appropriate name. The falls seem to be made of hundreds of white threads of water falling out of the rocks.
The falls are beautiful, not in the style of great waterfalls such as Niagara Falls, but in a gentle and subtle way. Many consider this to be one of the most lovely falls in Japan.
The water starts in the nearby active volcano and travels for years through the rocks to arrive at Shiraito Falls.
While you’re there check out the gift shop and the local delicacies such as roasted river fish available for sale.
If you are visiting in the fall around October, the fall colors can be astonishingly gorgeous, as well.
Travel to the falls by car or by local bus available from Karuizawa Station or from the Kyu Karuizawa Rotary.
You don’t have to be a world-famous musician to enjoy Karuizawa, but visiting John Lennon’s favorite spots is a great way to start your exploration.